For when peaceful stillness encompassed everything
and the night in its swift course was half spent,
Your all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne
leapt into the doomed land.
Most Christians, in one way or another, gather together on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Whether it is an early evening service of Bible readings and carols or a traditional midnight Mass, it is not difficult to find a church with open doors at some time on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is, all too often, another story. This makes Christmas unique among Christian Holy Days as its vigil seems to take precedence over the actual feast day. Indeed, Easter has a vigil and many churches are filled on Easter Eve. However, those churches are just as full on Easter Day, and the Easter Vigil is a very different service when compared to worship on Easter Day. A traditional midnight Mass may not look all that much different, structurally, when compared to a Christmas Day service. It is also true that a midnight or evening service on Christmas Eve fulfills our Sunday or Holy Day obligations. (This is especially relevant this year, when Christmas falls on a Sunday). So the question arises, “Why does the Church typically gather on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day? The Church has some interesting answers for this question:
I. Jesus Christ Was Born at Midnight.
Traditionally, it was believed that Christ was born at midnight. As the Church Fathers pondered the cosmos and the Scriptures, some of them came to hold the belief that nativity took place in the middle of the night. The account of the Passover in Exodus 12 states that that great event in salvation history took place at midnight. Since Christ is our Passover, it was believed that he came to us for our salvation at midnight. In the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, it says that, “at midnight a cry arose, “the bridegroom is here!” This passage was mystically applied to Christ, the bridegroom of the Church, further establishing the idea that He came at midnight. The above quote from the book of Wisdom, was seen as a Messianic prophecy, that Christ would come into this world which had been doomed because of sin in the stillness of midnight.
II. There used to be four services for Christmas Day.
It is exciting to think (at least in the mind of this priest) that long ago there were four services on Christmas. There was a standard vigil on Christmas Eve, followed by a midnight Eucharist. There was also a Mass at dawn and then another sometime after daybreak. In Rome, each of these services were held in different churches. These traditions date back to the early church in Jerusalem. An early Mass was held in Bethlehem at the site of the nativity, another was held at dawn in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, an another at midday. These three Masses in Jerusalem were associated with the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the shepherds, and the eternal generation of the Word of God, respectively. Since Christmas is the feast of the birth of Christ the midnight Mass has always been prominent (see no. I above).
III. The Day Begins at Sundown
The Church inherited from the people of Israel their particular method for measuring time. In the Jewish way of reckoning days, each new day begins when the sun goes down. The Gentiles believed that the day began at midnight, and this was never fully incorporated into the Church, even though it is the way we in the West think of the day. Anyone who has lived in or near a Jewish community will have observed that the Sabbath begins on what we would consider Friday evening, not on Saturday morning. Therefore, when we celebrate Christmas Eve we are celebrating Christmas. This seems obvious from a certain standpoint, especially when we are at a Christmas Eve service, but we often are unaware of the reasons why the Church does what She does.
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We post-moderns will (unfortunately) never understand pre-modern ways of thinking and the allegorical method of interpretation is still out of fashion- at least for the moment. However, it adds a certain beauty and poetry to think that the bright light of Christ came into the world in the darkness and stillness of midnight. We may not be able to reckon our days from sundown to sundown, but we can understand that the Church does. And while we may not be able to attend three or four services this Christmas, we can at the least, find our way into a local parish for at least one service and celebrate the infinite God who took on our flesh and was born into this broken world to save us from ourselves. Let’s keep the Mass in Christmas, even if we are gathering on Christmas Eve!